Re-evaluating the Mk1 Audi TT: four-wheel work of art?

You might think that it would be hard to find much in common between a car and a chair, but the original Audi TT and the outlandish ‘Wassily’ Model B3 are among the best-known manifestations of Bauhaus design, which is sufficient justification for a few straight comparisons, I reckon.

If we’re talking about value for money, the car has the chair licked comprehensively. In the early 1990s, an original B3 sold for nearly $31,000, which is more than £40,000 in today’s money. An original TT can easily be bought for 10% of that – and it will have four chairs thrown in.

The TT is a Bauhaus-inspired design that went from pen to paper, from paper to show star, then from show star to production with mercifully few design changes. Such faithfulness to the designer’s original vision is very rare in this industry, and because the car wasn’t forced to conform to a corporate identity (like its successor had to with its ‘goatee’ grille), it retains a timeless quality that marks it out as something special.

I pondered all of this as I spent a month with the Audi heritage fleet’s early-1999 example. The first thing that struck me was quite how small the original TT is compared with the current one. In fact, it’s actually both shorter and narrower than the current Volkswagen Polo.

Yet its cockpit is hardly what you would call cramped. True, the rear seats are useless for anyone with, say, a head or a pair of legs, but the front seats and the steering wheel have loads of adjustment for you to get comfortable. In some ways, you would think it were roomier inside the first TT than the latest one, such is the overwhelming nature of the latter’s extra airbags, safety beams and convenience features that help it pass stringent safety testing and satiate the modern consumer’s hunger for gadgets.

On the other hand, it’s this relative lack of electrickery and luxury that dates the TT the most: air conditioning and leather upholstery are about the only concessions to luxury you will find in here. You can at least fit an aftermarket Bluetooth head unit for streaming music and, thanks to a handy aluminium cover, hide it from view to avoid ruining the minimalist design of the interior.

It’s this economy of material usage that brings us back to Marcel Breuer’s 1926 chair and to Bauhaus design in general, because this movement was about the beauty of simplification. The Model B3 took inspiration from the huge club seats that you can find in country estates: these are very material-intensive, with lots of leather and stuffing to make them comfortable, whereas the B3 shuns all of this for a simple tubular steel frame and strips of woven eisengarn cloth strung between them in key places.

Bauhaus thought was also about celebrating industrial innovations. With Breuer’s chair, that can be seen in the frame. Previously, steel tubing had to have a welded seam, which would make the tubing too weak to be bent into complex shapes without collapsing in on itself. But thanks to advances in the manufacturing process, this issue was overcome.

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Driving the TT is a refreshingly manual experience in all senses, and when you consider just how anodyne its successor seemed by comparison, it’s easier to forgive the blunter aspects of its dynamic character.

You can get a decent TT for around £2000 – about the same amount as you need for a reproduction Model B3. Really pukka TTs aren’t much more, at between £3000 and £4000, and given the everyday practicality and strong performance the model offers, that’s good value for money.

Will this famous piece of Bauhaus design become a valuable classic, like a certain chair? Although it’s not the most exciting car to drive, I’m sure it will, as we rapidly near the end of the line for petrol cars and demand evaporates for anything that isn’t ‘rugged’ or, at the sporting end of the spectrum, overtly aggressive.

Other sub-£5000 sports cars

2001 BMW Z3, £2600: Values of BMW’s pretty little roadster are only going to keep rising, but lower-powered examples remain within reach of the casual enthusiast. This later 114bhp 1.9-litre four-cylinder car might not set your pulse racing, but it is pleasingly rust-free and well presented.

2009 Volkswagen Scirocco, £3250: Like the original Audi TT, the reborn Scirocco is a rebodied Volkswagen Golf that performs far less vivaciously than its coupé styling would suggest. Even so, it’s an increasingly handsome proposition, and this turbo petrol car has been mapped to 300bhp.

2005 Mazda MX-5, £4495: The third-generation MX-5 doesn’t rust for fun like its predecessors, so you will find a healthy selection in the classifieds, and we would wager that you could enjoy one for a good number of years without losing too much money.